Talmud pages

Yevamot 106

A gaze that kills.

Sometimes a woman is not interested in marrying her yavam. When this happens, the Talmud permits the court to intervene and try to convince the yavam to opt for halitzah instead. One of the ways they can do so is by utilizing something called a “mistaken halitzah,” an approach that involves a bit of deception. What is a mistaken halitzah?

Reish Lakish said: Any case in which they say, “Let her remove your shoe, and in doing so you will take her (in marriage).”

Reish Lakish explains that a mistaken halitzah is a situation in which the court suggests to the yavam that by allowing the woman to remove his shoe she will become his wife. Instead, the action is a valid halitzah, ending the levirate bond between them. 

Rabbi Yohanan objects to this opinion. He holds that halitzah is only effective when both parties enter into the ritual with the intention of severing their bond. Instead, Rabbi Yohanan suggests that a mistaken halitzah is:

A case in which they say to him: Let her perform halitzah on you on the condition that she will give you two hundred dinars.

Rabbi Yohanan allows the court to entice a man to undergo halitzah with a financial reward. Even though the court does not ultimately require the woman to pay, the ritual is effective since both parties performed it with the intention of severing the levirate bond. 

The Gemara then shares a number of anecdotes in which these deceptions were put into play, including one about the sister of Rav Papa’s wife, who fell to a yavam she felt was not suitable for her. The case came before Abaye, who sought to deceive the man by utilizing Reish Lakish’s solution. Aware of Rabbi Yohanan’s position, Rav Pappa intervenes:

Does the master [Abaye] not accept what Rabbi Yohanan said

Abaye, unsure how to respond, asks Rav Pappa what he should do. Rav Pappa suggests that he follow Rabbi Yohanan’s approach. And he does. Abaye, it turns out, is unaware that a deception has been employed and he instructs Rav Pappa’s sister-in-law to give the mantwo hundred dinars. 

Again Rav Pappa intervenes, explaining:

“I was fooling you,” was what she did to him. 

Rav Pappa then cites a beraita (an early teaching) that allows a person fleeing from bondage to use a similar deception to secure quick passage across a river by offering to pay more than the standard fee. In such a case, the rabbis rule that the escapee is only obligated to pay the normal fare, even though they promised to pay more. Rav Pappa suggests that just as it is permitted to use deception in that case, so too is it OK to do so for halitzah. 

The Gemara brings the anecdote to a close in a shocking way:

Abaye said to Rav Pappa: Where is your father? He said to him: He is in the city. Where is your mother? He said: In the city. Abaye set his gaze upon them, and both died.

What was Rav Pappa’s offense and why would Abaye respond by utilizing his powers to strike down Rav Pappa’s parents in response?

The Gemara is silent on the matter. Rashi explains that Abaye is impressed by Rav Pappa’s teaching and his questions seek to confirm that his fine legal work is made possible by his parents, who provide him with food and shelter so he can study. Abaye, on the other hand, has to work to support himself. Adin Steinsaltz reminds us that Abaye was orphaned in his youth, and so he may have felt “a twinge of jealousy” that led him to lash out.

It’s also possible that Abaye was reacting to Rav Pappa’s ruling itself. Remember, Abaye initially sought to follow Reish Lakish but changed his mind at the urging of Rav Pappa. Perhaps he felt fooled, like the yavam, and the accompanying embarrassment caused him to lash out.

Although it makes reference to many historical events, the Talmud is not a work of history. Talmudic stories are predominantly folklore, and scholars urge us not to read them as reports of actual events. Furthermore, as a modern reader of the Talmud, I do not believe that the rabbis possessed the supernatural powers sometimes attributed to them. 

That said, it’s difficult to read a story about a rabbi causing the death of the parents of another out of jealousy or embarrassment. I wish the talmudic narrator had chosen a different path for Abaye or, at least, offered some rebuke for taking things way too far.

Read all of Yevamot 106 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 21th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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